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As Cuban migrants keep landing in the Keys, families seek better information

Migrants Florida
Wilfredo Lee/AP
/
AP
Recently arrived migrants wait in a garage area of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection - Marathon Border Patrol Station, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, in Marathon, Fla.

Cuban migrants have kept landing in the Florida Keys, adding to the flood of arrivals there since New Year’s weekend, while their anxious families keep looking for them — and for better information from the Biden administration and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

As U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) buses drove out of Marathon with newly arrived Cuban rafters yesterday, Cuban families strained to see if one of their own was inside them. One family did spy a relative and quickly got in their pickup truck to follow the buses.

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"He came all the way from Granma [province]," in the southeast of Cuba," one excited relative shouted. "We didn't know until now if he'd made it or drowned in the sea."

But William Rivero of Miami did not see his brother Jorge — who he said left Mariel, Cuba, last Tuesday in a boat with 28 other people. Rivero said relatives in Cuba told him by phone that Cuban police tried to keep the boat from leaving, but it escaped.

CubanFamilyMarathon.jpg
Tim Padgett
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WLRN.org
A Cuban family from Tampa peers through the gate at the U.S. Custom and Border Protection facility in Marathon in the Florida Keys, trying to glimpse a relative who just arrived by sea from Cuba.

“They built the boat themselves; it’s dark green with ‘Emmanuel’ painted on the side,” Rivero told WLRN. “So now we’re trying to find out if the authorities here found that boat — and Jorge.”

Rivero’s girlfriend, Jennifer Garcia — who is also looking for Cuban relatives she believes recently arrived by sea — pointed out that last Friday Gov. DeSantis declared the situation in the Keys an emergency and is marshaling state agencies like the Division of Emergency Management and the National Guard to assist federal officials.

“If the Governor really wants to help,” Garcia said, “he could work with CBP to create a website with a list of names of migrants who’ve made it here, so families like ours don’t have to wander all over the Keys looking.”

She added that Cuban families like hers are also confused about new, carrot-and-stick immigration rules the Biden administration announced last week for Cubans, as well as Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans.

On the one hand, the program offers them a more generous parole for legal entry into the U.S. — if they have a sponsor here to support them. But on the other, it will increase expulsions for migrants from those countries who enter illegally.

A big question Cubans here like Rivero and Garcia say they have is whether the new, quicker expulsion regimen will apply not just to Cuban migrants who cross at the U.S. southern border, but also by sea on the Florida coast. The Administration has not given a definitive answer yet; but immigration experts tell WLRN it's likely since the Cuban government recently agreed to again start receiving migrants deported from the U.S.

More than 500 Cubans arrived in the Keys by boat over New Year's weekend. In fiscal year 2023, since Oct. 1, the U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted more than 3,000 Cubans at sea — already more than half the number it encountered in all of fiscal year 2022.

Migrants Florida
Wilfredo Lee/AP
/
AP
Onlookers watch as busses carrying Cuban migrants leave from U.S. Coast Guard Sector Key West facility, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Key West, Fla.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.